Collaborative Research Internship: The Local/Global Birnam Oak – by Lucy Snow

Published: Posted on

My name is Lucy Snow, and this year will be my third year of studying BA English. This summer, I worked alongside Dr Toria Johnson and three other interns on a project titled ‘The Local/Global Birnam Oak’. This project had many veins, but focused mainly on the legacies of the Birnam Oak, the last remaining tree in the Birnam Wood. The forest is most notably featured in Macbeth, when, after a prophesy from an apparition, Macbeth vows to “not be afraid of death and bane / Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane” (5.3.72). The project questioned the Scottish identity of Macbeth and the tree, interrogated the tourism industry in Scotland, and drew attention to other appearances of Birnam Wood in literature and popular culture.

The majority of my time on the project was spent focusing on the Dunkeld Bridge Toll Riots of 1868. The populations of Dunkeld and Birnam had been charged a halfpenny to cross the bridge over the Tay for 60 years, and by 1868, a local man named Alexander Robertson had decided that enough was enough. After a few attempts to reclaim the bridge, he hosted a meeting under the Birnam Oak to rally his troops. Before I started work on the internship, I knew nothing about this riot. However, after informing Toria of my interest in archival work, she suggested I spend some time transcribing the material related to the Bridge Toll Riots. With a mixture of contemporary newspaper articles, court records, poems, and historical writing, I spent the majority of my time on the project working through the transcription. It was very exciting to see material that has only ever been read by a few people before.

In the latter weeks of the project, Toria arranged a visit to the Library of Birmingham in order to access some of their materials about Macbeth. This trip was a very interesting experience, giving me a deeper understanding of the storage and treatment of archival materials. It really increased my confidence, meaning that I would feel comfortable visiting the archives again in the future. I spent an enjoyable few hours looking through collections of illustrations of Macbeth, taking notes on the way they referenced Scottishness. I found the illustrations of particular actors and actresses in role as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth most interesting. Seeing the differences in costumes between an 18th century and a 19th century production told me a lot about the importance they placed in historical accuracy and Scottish identity. Going into the project, I had a strong interest in historical fashion and costuming, so this part of my research was particularly interesting to me.

Overall, I am so glad that I had the opportunity to take part in the Collaborative Research Internship. It was a lovely experience that has given me a new perspective on academic research and the process of accessing an archive. It has also given me a better understanding of the importance of slow reading and research, a skill that will be very useful while writing my dissertation next year. I am very grateful to Dr Toria Johnson and would encourage anyone to apply for the CRI in the future.

Lucy Snow, BA English